Review: Wish I Was Here by M. John Harrison (2023)


One of our greatest and most original living writers sets out the perils of the writing life with joyful provocation

Wish I Was Here is a masterpiece. Formally inventive, constantly surprising, M John Harrison has written an archaeology of fragments that shivers with wholeness. It’s exquisite’ Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk

‘As always with M John Harrison, you’re never quite sure what you’re reading or where it will take you next. There are only a few certainties: that it will surprise you, sometimes astound you, and leave you profoundly changed’ Jonathan Coe, author of The Rotters’ Club

‘Late style is when the people who have all your life jumped in front of you waving their arms – No! Careful! – jump out one more time to encourage you to run them down, and this time you do.’

M. John Harrison has produced one of the greatest bodies of fiction of any living British author, encompassing space opera, speculative fiction, fantasy, magical and literary realism. Every book is subversive of genre and united by restless intelligence, experimentation and rebelliousness of spirit.

This is his first memoir, an ‘anti-memoir’, written in his mid-seventies with aphoristic daring and trademark originality and style, fresh after winning the Goldsmiths Prize in 2020. Many of our most prominent younger writers now recognise him as the most significant British writer of his generation. He is ‘brilliantly unsettling’ (Olivia Laing), ‘magnificent’ (Neil Gaiman), ‘one of the best writers of fiction currently at work in English’ (Robert Macfarlane).


Many thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

A disclaimer upfront: I am not clever enough to write a proper review of this book, nor have I had enough time to sift through the wreckage of thoughts and revelations that reading this ‘anti-memoir’ has left in my tattered brain. It’s left me with a feeling that seeds of ideas have been sown in my mind, and I won’t understand them fully for years, if ever. But that’s a really exciting feeling to get from a book!

Where do I start with describing Wish I Was Here? It’s fragmented, splintered, not quite a book on writing, not quite a memoir, but not NOT either of those things… The ideas are scattered but not random, and as I read, I found myself questioning everything I thought I knew. It’s weirdly beautiful in the way that there’s a complete rejection of any attempt to build a cohesive sense of self – there is something in that which I have felt but never been able to articulate. When Harrison talks about the rift between your present and past self, particularly when looking back on something you’ve written a long time ago, it sets my brain buzzing. I’ve long had the feeling that I have lived layers of lives rather than one continuous one. Perhaps this isn’t what he means at all, but it really got me thinking.

I feel about this book both similarly and kind of the opposite to how I felt when I read Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Similarly in that: I am not clever enough for this, and yet, there are ideas here that speak to me and might change everything, and the opposite in that while Lessing’s book was a sprawling, terrifying slog at times, this book is a short, sharp injection of something I didn’t know I needed. And of course there are the notebooks, or nowtbooks – I coincidently looked through some of my own shortly before I started Wish I Was Here, and a lot of what I found startled me with the gap between what I think I remember of a particular time and what I recorded in my scribbles. So there is a lot to ponder about memory, too. Harrison rejects memory, in a way that I find fascinating, and again, I’ve got a lot more thinking to do on the subject.

I don’t feel like I can write much more in this review – my response to this book was so personal, and I’m still dealing with the fall-out! I do think anyone interesting in writing, memory, the idea of the self, or anyone who wants to see things differently, should read this. I’m looking forward to letting the words in Wish I Was Here percolate, and seeing how they change me (if indeed there is a ‘me’ left to change!).

Wish I Was Here: An Anti-Memoir by M. John Harrison is published by Serpent’s Tail and is available to purchase here.


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